Pastoral Articles

Are Divorced People Welcome in the Fellowship of the Church?

Are Divorced People Welcome in the Fellowship of the Church?

Dr. Jeff VanGoethem


Of course they are. As are all sinners, saved by grace. Those with the pain of divorce in their background are welcomed to the cross with sinners of all kinds, both small and great, to drink of the Lord’s mercies. I have frequently found that some of our divorced Christians are the finest Christians and the most devoted servants of the Lord. Precisely because they know what grace is: they know what it is to be broken and they know what it is to be recovered and restored by grace. So yes they are most welcome in the fellowship of the church, to give their testimony of God’s merciful grace in their lives. No one of us rescued by the mercies of Jesus should ever be ashamed to say what we were rescued from. The Apostle Paul, the model convert, was certainly not afraid to share that from which the Lord had rescued him.

We have also taken steps in our own ministry to make sure and not stigmatize those who have been divorced in the past as was unfortunately all too common in Christian circles years ago. For example we do not even inquire at the point of membership about marital history. If someone has a strong profession of saving faith in Jesus and has been baptized as a believer and is in reasonable agreement with our doctrine and practice they are welcomed as members of our body with open arms. The Lord accepts them. Therefore we certainly have no grounds not to do so. And there are no restrictions as to their membership status. They can serve the Lord in and through our church just like anyone else. The only time a question mark is raised is in the rare instance in which a believer might be transferring to our church and we learn that there are disciplinary issues from a previous congregation.

Does this mean that divorce is not a sin? Of course not. It is clearly a sin. It violates God’s explicit will, as revealed in His Word. It is interesting that although God expresses His displeasure with divorce in the Bible, it is not listed in many of the lists of vices in Scripture, such as Matthew 15:19-20and Galatians 5:19-21 and others like it. This is because divorce is really the culmination of other sins, which the Lord Jesus consolidated into the concept of hardheartedness, which He spoke of in the gospels. Hardheartedness is a powerful mixture of deeper sins including pride, willfulness, rebellion, selfishness and so forth. We also have to acknowledge that it is conceivable that some people are forced into divorce by a sinning partner, while having indulged in little or nothing themselves that is a violation of God’s Word. To these we extend our greatest pity.

The hardheartedness that goes along with divorce and its inevitable attack on marital vows must be considered the worst aspect of the sinfulness of divorce. It brings such painful consequences to families and churches.

So the sin of divorce can be a complex and complicated matter because it involves the intimate relationship of two people. It takes two to tango they say. It takes two to make a marriage work and often two to make it come apart. There are many other sins at the root of the sin of divorce and it is not always easy to untangle this. From experience I can tell you it is always a very painful business. But happily we can at least say for sure that divorce is not an unpardonable sin. The Lord’s mercy of forgiveness extends to all sin, including the sin of divorce and all that goes along with it, for those who seek God’s forgiveness.

Now of course we must make some careful distinctions on this point in order to have a completely scriptural understanding.

First we must make a distinction between sin which is repented of and sin which is affirmed. Most of the Christians I have met who have been divorced in the past are not saying, "I was divorced and I am proud of it. I enjoyed it and if I want to get divorced again, I am going to do it." That is not the posture of one who has received grace. This is an example of affirming sin. Obviously if someone who spoke in this way came to our church, we would have to have a long talk and reach a better understanding before we would say that such a person understands grace and is ready to unite with the Lord’s church.

But divorced Christians are usually saying, "I know my failed marriage was not God’s will. I deeply regret it. I have confessed this to the Lord including all the sinning that went into the failed marriage and God has given me grace to put my life back together and I praise Him for it." This person is not affirming his or her sin but represents just the right spirit of the broken sinner. This is the proper spirit of repentance: I am sorry I went my own way. I lament my departure from God and His Word. I long to please Him now. And I return to God under the cross. This is the true experience of grace.

Take this example. Suppose someone had been a thief in their earlier years and used to go around stealing. And this person came to our church and said "I am a believer in the Lord, I want to be baptized and join the church. I used to be a thief but the Lord has forgiven me and I am ready by His grace to serve Him now." We would say, "Wonderful, glory to God! Come on in."

On the other hand if the thief said, "I am a believer in the Lord and a thief. I want to be baptized and join the church. By the way I plan to keep on stealing." We would have to have a long talk with such a person. That person has yet to understand repentance, forgiveness and true saving faith, wouldn’t you agree? He or she is not ready to join the body of Christ. In fact, this manifests the spirit of ignorance and unbelief.

So a person who comes to us with divorce in their past is warmly received. We do not have any grounds to hold the sins of the past against them, sins which have been repented of and forgiven by God. All of us are in that boat. So such are welcomed. If the sins of our past were held against us, none of us could be part of the body of Christ and I could not belong either, let alone be a pastor. But it is different if someone comes to us and says "I am a believer and I want to join the church and by the way I have a right to deny my marital vows and get divorced and I plan to do so." Such is not the spirit of a true Christian and such a person should be strongly admonished that they are not embracing the true confession of the church of Jesus Christ. So there is a distinction between those who have repented of their sins and those who are still affirming their sins. The former have experienced the liberty of grace and are true Christians and are to be welcomed in the body. The latter are still in their sins and have not really experienced the liberty of grace.

We also have to make a distinction between sin which has been left behind and sin which is on-going. Sad to say, it has become common place in the church today to say, "I am unhappy in my marriage. I want to get divorced and hopefully find someone better." And everyone who says things like this has a story to tell. But what about the vows you made to God? What about the fact that God has joined you with your spouse? What about the edict in scripture that man is not to separate what God has joined? What about the unbreakable bond of kin and family that God established between you and your spouse? What about your testimony in the church and in the world? What about the fact that Jesus said, "If anyone divorces his spouse and marries another, he (or she) commits adultery?" What about all that?

Often people will say, "God will have to forgive me." Or "Well I know all that but I have justification." Or "I don’t see it that way." Or "I feel that God thinks what I am doing is OK." Or "I prayed about it and God has let me know it is OK." Believe me, I have heard all of this and more. However, this is presumption not repentance. This is embracing sin, not leaving it behind. And in such a case, the body of Christ is bound by scripture to enforce the marital vows that have been made.

We go back to the thief illustration. The thief who says "I have left my stealing behind" remains a blessed part of the body of Christ no matter what he has done in the past. But the thief who wants to keep on stealing AND be part of the body of Christ, saying, "Oh well, God will just have to forgive me" cannot expect the body of Christ to look the other way and not confront this blatant sin. So we have to see the distinction between sin that has been left behind and sin which is on-going. A believer is commanded by God’s Word not to divorce, so much as it depends on him or her.

Yes, we all know that there are those rare occasions when a divorce is necessary in the church because of the appalling and even dangerous behavior of one spouse or another. But even under these circumstances there can be a representation of a proper spirit toward the marriage – that it is not ended by divorce and one is pledging still to be faithful to marriage vows despite the need for the protection divorce offers. Seeking this protection is not the same as saying, "I am going to do what I want regardless of what the Bible says." So there is a distinction between repenting of sin and turning from it on the one hand, and embracing a sinful spirit and continuing in it.

And finally we have to see the distinction between reception into the body of Christ and the permission to remarry. Someone comes to me and says, "I have been divorced. I sinned against God. I am sorry for it, I repent of it and receive the grace provided me in the cross of Jesus. Can I come into the church?" I say, "By all means, brother or sister, come in and do God’s will to the best of your ability with the rest of us. We rejoice to have you!"

But as a believer, this brother or sister still has a responsibility to obey scripture. It is necessary to do so in order to embrace authentic discipleship, to conform his or her life to God’s will as revealed in the scripture. That is a matter of simple discipleship, which applies to all of us. And in regard to a Christian who has been divorced, there is CLEAR teaching on what God’s will is. It is as 1 Corinthians 7:11 plainly says that he or she is to remain unmarried or to be reconciled to one’s former spouse. And I hasten to add the stark and clear words of Jesus that to get remarried after divorce is adultery (because marriage is for life and can only be ended by death). Thus one can be welcomed into the church with open arms after a divorce on the basis of grace, but that does not necessarily grant immediate and automatic permission to remarry. This is a point that many miss. God has made his will clear on this point. Grace does not obliterate the responsibility the Christian has before God to do God’s will as outlined in the Bible.

Let’s go back to the thief. He has repented of his sins and embraced the mercy and grace of Jesus. Therefore he is welcome in the body of Christ. As is the divorced person. But this dear former thief may still have to pay his debt to society. He may have to go to jail if his crimes have caught up with him. And he certainly should make restitution to those he has defrauded. Why? Because this is what God’s Word says to do. The government has a biblical responsibility to punish the lawbreaker and those who steal should be so punished and a thief also should restore what he has stolen. There is clear teaching in God’s Word on this point. Being forgiven of our sins does not mean we can just ignore what God has said about our responsibilities.

So also the divorced person, must still fulfill his or her obligation to martial vows as all scripture teaches. Marriage is permanent and the divorced are required to reconcile with the former spouse so long as this is possible. So we have to see the distinction between being welcomed into the body of Christ on the basis of the same grace that welcomes every sinner on the one hand and permission to remarry on the other hand, permission which can only come when one’s former spouse is dead or perhaps remarried. Otherwise, the believer still has a responsibility to that marriage. God’s Word makes that clear.

I realize there have been some who have been divorced and remarried long before they were ever concerned with doing God’s will. In many cases there is no way to make things right with a previous spouse – the marriage cannot be restored and the biblical command to be reconciled is a practical impossibility. You can’t put a broken egg back into the shell. There is not much one can do about this except perhaps ask the forgiveness of a previous spouse and then go on and do God’s will from that point.

Jesus did call a second marriage a marriage. It is a real marriage. The best thing you can do now is to give glory to God through your current marriage by being a faithful Christian husband or wife. In situations like this, you cannot undo the past. The best you can do is just to learn from it.

So yes, divorced people are very welcome in the fellowship of the church. Just like all sinners of all kinds. And we have seen and know that many such Christians have had a wonderful place in our fellowship, living and serving in the power of the grace of God. By His wonderful grace God will use them greatly. One only has to look at someone like Charles Colson, the well known Christian author and founder of Prison Fellowship (who was divorced and remarried before his conversion to Christ) to realize that God often mightily uses those with such sins and errors in their backgrounds. So yes, a welcome from Jesus and His church to all sinners saved by grace, whatever their former sins happen to be!

At the same time we say this, we do not sanitize the sin of divorce, but take it seriously and fight against it with all our strength because of the harm and damage it does to people, to children, to society, and to the body of Christ and because of the pain it inflicts upon the heart of God. And the experience of grace does not liberate us from being responsible to do what the Word of God says to do. In fact the truly redeemed will be of such a heart that they will long and yearn to do the will of God whatever it might be! This is what true grace produces in the heart of the Christian.

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